New Delhi: A spectacular show put up by a thousand ‘made-in-India’ drones at Vijay Chowk was one of the highlights of this year’s ‘Beating the Retreat’ ceremony, held on 29 January. Gleaming in the night sky in a myriad colours, they formed various shapes — a silhouette of Mahatma Gandhi, a map of India and the logo of the central government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative — all in sync with the background music, as part of a 10-minute show on the government’s achievements.
The drones used during the ceremony are the brainchild of BotLab Dynamics — a startup incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), New Delhi, which builds drone technology solutions, designing both hardware and software in-house. The startup is led by two IIT Delhi alumni, Tanmay Bunkar and Anuj Kumar Barnwal, along with Dr Sarita Ahlawat, who holds a PhD in BioInformatics from the University of Illinois. All three had one thing in common — they wanted to make something in their own country.
“Anuj and I were batchmates and roommates at IIT Delhi while studying Engineering Physics. I was trying to make flight computers for drones. After passing out, I stayed back and worked in IIT labs while Anuj took up a job. In 2016, I asked Anuj if he was happy with his job, or would like to join me. That is how we came together to start this company. At that time, we already had a lot of interest in drones, so he quit his job and in July 2016, we got the company incubated at IIT Delhi. Later, Dr Sarita joined us. The three of us have just one thing in common — we wanted to make something in India,” BotLab Dynamics co-founder Tanmay Bunkar told ThePrint.
In 2017, BotLab Dynamics was awarded Rs 50 lakh as seed fund under the NIDHI-Seed Support System, an initiative of the Centre’s department of science and technology (DST) to extend financial support to technology-driven startups in their initial phase. This paved the way for future research and development. In 2018, the company was selected by Army Design Bureau (ADB) — which spearheads the army’s ‘Make In India’ initiative, to do a demo of a heavy-lift drone in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.
BotLab was given another seed fund of Rs 1 crore by the research and development wing of DST. They were subsequently given Rs 2.5 crore by the Centre’s Technology Development Board, according to Union Minister of State for Science and Technology, Dr Jitendra Singh.
Today, their company has over 40 employees. “Your formal education might not seem useful initially, but later you realise that you were given all the tools. Due to our background in Engineering Physics, we understand the technology and can assess things better,” said Tanmay.
‘Great potential in our country’
While Tanmay works as a systems engineer in the company, Anuj handles the finances and programming, and Dr Sarita is responsible for fundraising and reaching out to agencies.
“We got the offer (for Beating the Retreat) from the defence ministry in June 2021. We had demonstrated 49 drones to the DST secretary and IIT Delhi director. It was our luck that the DST secretary was friends with the secretary at the ministry of defence, who further motivated us to demonstrate to the world that India is capable of doing something like this,” said Tanmay.
“Drone shows are commonplace in the UAE and other countries, but they are done by Russian groups. A Russian group did a show of 500 drones in Lucknow and that show was done for Rs 4 crore. In that amount, a startup in India can be funded,” he added.
“Our objective is to maintain the hardware and software in India. We are scaling this up at a point when the world is running out of semiconductor chips. We had to redesign our electronics because the part we needed ran out of supply and we had only six months. It was a race against time for us. Even the body of our drones has been made by a fruit basket-maker from Seelampur, who could create those within a week. This is the kind of potential we have in our country,” said Tanmay.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)